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Do Jews Believe In Turning the Other Cheek or Strict Justice?

Dear JITC-

I just saw Spider-Man, which seems to be about the Christian version of justice. Christians believe in turning the other cheek. Desmond Tutu, who just died, said Holocaust survivors should forgive Nazis! Jews believe in compassion but also in stopping and punishing evil. Why does Judaism believe in vengeance in addition to compassion?

Thank you,

A

 

Dear A,

Thanks for your question, though I’m going to do something very unusual: I’m going to disagree with you.

“How can you disagree with the question?” I hear readers ask. Okay, fair enough. What I’m going to do is disagree with certain things that your question takes for granted. Let’s break it down.

1) “I just saw Spider-Man, which seems to be about the Christian version of justice.”

I haven’t seen it yet so I can’t comment on the accuracy of this statement, though I’d be surprised if the movie has an overtly Christian message. More likely, it’s just a byproduct of being made in a predominantly Christian culture. Because of the predominance of Christianity in the US, the default concepts of things like God, prayer, Heaven and Hell are the Christian versions of these things. If “Heaven” makes you picture winged people on clouds with halos and harps, or if “Hell” makes you imagine devils with pitchforks, that’s just because culturally our media has been influenced by the majority of the population.

2) “Christians believe in turning the other cheek. Desmond Tutu, who just died, said Holocaust survivors should forgive Nazis!”

A new book just came out from Kodesh Press, entitled Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai.  I have an essay in the book and, in it, I explain why, when answering questions of comparative religion, I won’t speak for what other religions believe:

I can explain, for example, why Judaism doesn’t embrace Jesus as the messiah, presenting Bible verses and other sources as proof texts, but it would be inappropriate for me to explain why another religion disagrees with what seems to me to be an ironclad conclusion. Even if I believe that I am presenting their position fairly, who am I to speak for them?

Regarding that famous verse about turning the other cheek, the Christian Bible may have popularized it, but it actually originated in the Jewish Bible. We read it every Tisha b’Av! Eicha 3:30 says, “Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him….” So we Jews believe in “turning the other cheek,” too! You may not have known that but now that you do, you know that it’s not the entirety of our position on jurisprudence!

Is Christian jurisprudence based exclusively on turning the other cheek? You take that as a given but I think it’s more nuanced than that. At this point many readers are probably thinking of the Inquisition, but let’s put that aside and look at the Gospels. When Jesus was being questioned, he was slapped by an officer. Rather than turning the other cheek, he said, “If I said something wrong, testify as to what was wrong. But if I spoke correctly, why did you strike Me?” (John 18:23) This may be the only time Jesus didn’t “turn the other cheek” in a literal sense but there are other cases where he doesn’t do so metaphorically, such as when he chased the moneychangers out of the Temple. This suggests that even in Christianity there may be times to turn the other cheek and times to stand firm. Most people know that one famous verse from Matthew out of context, but I suspect that it’s not the entirety of their theology any more than it is ours. (And, as per my personal philosophy, if you want to know what their theology actually is, you’ll have to ask a pastor!)

3) “Jews believe in compassion but also in stopping and punishing evil. Why does Judaism believe in vengeance in addition to compassion?”

I agree with your assertion that “Jews believe in compassion but also in stopping and punishing evil” but you lose me with your bottom-line question, “Why does Judaism believe in vengeance in addition to compassion?” We were talking about justice; who said anything about vengeance?

Judaism is very much against vengeance. Leviticus 19:18 tells us explicitly, “Do not take revenge or bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am Hashem.” The Talmud (Yoma 23a) defines vengeance as follows: You ask someone to borrow a tool and he refuses. The next day he asks you to borrow a tool and you refuse because he refused you. That may seem a minor thing. One might consider himself a good person but still think, “Well, of course I wouldn’t lend to someone who wouldn’t lend to me!” Nevertheless, even such a minor thing is prohibited because of vengeance.

Not being vengeful is implicit in other mitzvos, as well. Exodus 23:5  commands us that if an enemy’s donkey is struggling under its burden, we are to help him re-load it, even many times. It’s also specifically prohibited to strike a convicted offender beyond the number of lashes to which he was sentenced. You might think a felon deserves extra punishment but the Torah makes it clear that doing do isn’t justified (Deuteronomy 25:3).

The only verse that even suggests that vengeance might be acceptable is Leviticus 24:20 – the famous verse about “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, etc.” – but, in the words of Inigo Montoya, “I do not think it means what you think it means.” There’s a halacha l’Moshe MiSinai (an oral explanation given to Moses at Sinai) that it means that the court is supposed to charge appropriate damages to one who causes such an injury. We never see anyone throughout Tanach acting on this verse in its literal meaning, nor is there any Talmudic authority who differs with this interpretation.

Now, on the subject of compassion in justice, I said I agree with you there but I have to qualify that. The judges absolutely have to be impartial. They’re not allowed to favor an important person because of his station (Leviticus 19:15), nor are they allowed to favor an unfortunate person out of pity for his circumstances (Exodus 23:3). Justice is meant to be blind.

When I agree with you that justice is compassionate, I mean that the legal process favors acquittal. First of all, you may be aware of the principle of being dan l’kaf z’chus – judging others favorably. This is what we refer to in English as a “presumption of innocence.” The accused could be acquitted by a simple majority but conviction required a supermajority. Judges who voted to convict could change their votes to acquit but those who voted to acquit could not change to convict. Yes, many crimes carry the potential for the death penalty but the standard necessary for execution was so impossibly difficult to meet that it was an extremely rare occurrence. The possibility of execution was intended primarily as a deterrent.

So let’s recap: (a) I haven’t yet seen the new Spider-Man movie so I can’t comment on your interpretation of its message; (b) If it does align with the “Christian” ideal of justice, that’s because such concepts tend to become the predominant outlooks in a country that’s mostly Christian; (c) turning the other cheek has its roots in the Jewish Bible; it’s not the extent of our legal procedures and I doubt very much it’s the full extent of anyone else’s; (d) compassion does indeed have a place in the justice system but the judges are not permitted to rule based on compassion. Rather, the justice system itself is compassionate; (e)“Stopping and punishing evil” is justice but it isn’t vengeance. Vengeance has no place in our legal system. Even the death penalty isn’t intended as vengeance; it’s deterrence.

Remember that verse about turning the other cheek that started in the Jewish Bible but that most people know from the Christian Bible? Here’s another: “Vengeance is Mine…sayeth the Lord” (Romans 12:19) is actually paraphrased from Deuteronomy 32:35. The meaning? Only God has the right to take revenge. The rest of us are bound by the system that He put in place, which is designed to minimize evil and punish wrongdoing but in a fair, compassionate and equitable manner.

 

Sincerely,

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, JITC Educational Correspondent

Follow Ask Rabbi Jack on YouTube 

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